Cleveland—It would be impossible not to know that the Republican National Convention is in town. The moment one deplanes at Hopkins International Airport, signage welcomes delegates and visitors to one of the biggest political events of the year. The streets downtown are lined with patriotic bunting, and virtually every bar and restaurant has a hokey political drink special or menu change.
There’s one other visible change that will be hard to miss this week: the heavy militarization of the Cleveland police department. Over the past several months, $20 million worth of equipment, much of it military-grade, has poured into the city for use during the convention.
There has been little public transparency about what the city has purchased and intends to wield this week, but the limited public records that do exist and the precedent of policing in prior host cities indicates law enforcement will essentially be in a paramilitary posture. That will be the case long after after the Republican delegates leave town. The Cleveland police department—already operating under a federal consent decree for excessive use of force—will be keeping everything it has bought, as do most convention host cities.
The presence of this military equipment has drawn deep concern from experts in Cleveland and beyond. Aside from creating a chilling effect on people who want to exercise their First Amendment protest rights, research shows the presence of heavy-duty weaponry and riot gear can create a tenser atmosphere and induce the protesters who do show up to act more aggressively.
And national tensions are already soaring, with police-community relations under potentially unprecedented strain. Two horrific shootings have targeted police officers in recent weeks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, with the latter incident happening only 24 hours before the start of the convention. Law enforcement across the country, and certainly in Cleveland, is unquestionably jangled and on edge.
Right in the middle of all this, Donald Trump will take the stage at Quicken Loans Arena. Mass protests have followed his rallies throughout the past year, with protesters often embracing civil disobedience and disruption to make their point. Several motorcycle gangs and white-supremacist groups have pledged to show up to “protect” the convention on behalf of Trump, and the state’s open-carry laws have already permitted a demonstrator armed with an assault weapon to prowl the perimeter of the convention zone on Sunday.
It’s a situation that both demands a large security presence, and can easily be inflamed by overkill from law enforcement.
* * *
The RNC in Cleveland, like the DNC in Philadelphia next week, is designated a “national security special event.” The city of Cleveland received a $50 million federal grant in December to spend on security for the convention; $30 million will pay personnel costs, while $20 million has been spent on new equipment.